NAHA Header


Cleng Peerson and the Cummunitarian Background of Norwegian Immigration
    by Mario S. De Pellis (Volume 2I: Page 136)

Cleng Peerson’s endeavor was then, and is still, to unite all Norwegians into one community owning all its property in common.


Cleng Peerson, the father of Norwegian immigration, the Norwegian pathfinder, the Norwegian trail blazer, the Norwegian Daniel Boone, the Peer Gynt of the prairies, is one of those fascinating but enigmatic figures who stand at the beginnings of things. Like so many such figures, especially those at the sources of large historical developments, Peerson did not leave much for historians to work on: his early beliefs and activities are as obscure as they are important. While the scholar expects a haze of origins to surround such a person, he cherishes the eternal hope of penetrating to the "real man," the man the titles and praises of posterity.

It is not always the mere passage of time that effaces and distorts; other factors have lessened our knowledge of Cleng Peerson. For one thing, he was a wanderer with no settled occupation. He has been described as a dreamer and dubbed "Peer Gynt on the Prairies" — mainly on the basis of his fabled dream of Illinois as an Eden for Norwegian settlers. One day in Illinois, Peerson lay down under a tree, and, falling asleep, beheld the wild prairie transformed into a great fruitful [137] garden with herds of fat cattle peacefully grazing between splendid fields of waving grain. This vision he took as a sign from God that the Fox River Valley was to be the Norwegian Land of Promise and he its Moses. His hunger and sufferings were then forgotten. {1}

This oft recounted and variously embellished story of Peerson’s dream contained a few kernels of truth — as folk myths often do. Peerson did wander through Illinois in its primitive, frontier state. He was very much taken with it. He did encourage Norwegians to settle there. He was a restless man, a "loner" who tramped thousands of miles, carrying but a small pack of personal belongings. He traveled through a nation that knew not his native tongue, through alien corn. He saw little corn, however, in his wanderings: rather only cane-brakes, dismal swamps, woods, brush, and, eventually, the prairies of the great American back country. Such men leave few tracks. Our knowledge of Peerson rests largely on oral testimony written down years after it was spoken, or on chance remarks made about him in letters. He himself was little given to writing, and his backwoods roamings afforded him little opportunity to do any.

Despite Rasmus B. Anderson’s diligent interviewing during the nineteenth century and despite the monumental work of Theodore C. Blegen in our own time, the pathfinding Peerson, the Peerson of New York and Illinois, still preserves an air of mystery. Enigmas and hazy origins usually encourage legend, speculation, controversy, and "problems."

What is definitely known about Peerson? A sketch of his life would begin in 1788, the year of his birth in Tysvær Parish, Stavanger Amt, Norway, the son of Peder Hesthammer. Originally his name was Kleng Pedersen Hesthammer. He is said [138] to have traveled in England, France, and Germany. He first came to America in 1821, and after some travel, mostly in New York State, he made a hurried visit to Norway in 1824, apparently to promote a Norwegian colony in Murray (now Kendall) Township, Orleans County, near Rochester, New York. This led to the organization, under the leadership of Lars Larsen, of a company of Norwegians intending to settle in western New York. Purchasing a sloop much too small for their safety, fifty-two Norwegians sailed in 1825 for New York City. Cleng Peerson met them at the pier. {2}

The Norwegians who arrived on this ship came to be known as "sloopers" or "sloop folk" and their ship, the "Restoration," is often referred to as the "Norwegian Mayflower," for it marked the real beginning of Norwegian emigration to America.

Although Peerson later became a pronounced freethinker, he was at first attracted to religion, and he enjoyed friendly relations with Quakers and Haugeans (Lutheran pietists) in Norway. The Norwegian Quakers had been converted from Lutheranism just a few years before the voyage of the "Restoration." In fact, one attraction of Kendall Township for the sloopers was probably the small knots of American Quakers living near there. {3} Lars Larsen, one of the organizers of the [139] sloop venture, was a Quaker, and so also were two or three other passengers. The rest were Haugeans; that is, they belonged to a low-church, pietistic offshoot of Lutheranism, roughly analogous to the early Methodist branch of Anglicanism. Despite the minority of Quakers among the sloopers, their importance in the Kendall venture is underlined by the fact that the township was originally named after John Murray, a Quaker merchant and landowner who helped build the Erie Canal. Joseph Fellows, agent for the Pulteney Estate from which the slooper lands were purchased, was himself a Quaker. Quakers in New York City raised money to help pay for the passage of the sloopers to Kendall. {4}

In 1824 Peerson had selected six pieces of land in Kendall Township for the sloopers, and most of them followed him there to settle. {5} As for Peerson himself, little is known of his activities for the next eight years, but he probably remained, off and on, in the Kendall colony. By 1888 restlessness once more conquered him and he went west to reconnoiter Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and probably Wisconsin for new places to settle. Arrested by his famous dream, he finally chose the Fox River Valley in Illinois and walked back to New York State to drum up interest in what was then the "far west." In 1834, the Fox River settlement became the salient of expanding Norwegian emigration to the West: to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas.

In view of our somewhat incomplete knowledge of this earlier, heroic age of Norwegian immigration, almost any new source material touching upon Peerson’s early career would be of interest. The Peerson letter recently reproduced [140] and described in this series was just such a newly discovered source — a significant one. {6}

Hitherto only four letters of Peerson had been known, and since all four are merely copies, the manuscript letter recently published is a unique one. Even Dean Blegen, after studying Peerson and Norwegian migration for many years, saw the difficulty of trying to make sense of Peerson’s career. {7} The newly discovered letter, together with information from other sources, seems to alter the aspect of some of Peerson’s activities.

In the letter, dated June 27, 1826, seven well-known sloopers wrote the Rappite community of Economy (now Ambridge), eighteen miles below Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River, asking for a loan of $1,600 to buy 400 acres of land "on or before the beginning of 1828." Writing from Murray (later Kendall) Township, Orleans County, New York, the Norwegians stated that they needed the money to alleviate their sufferings as a "people . . . poor and penniless and in a foreign land." Surrounded by a sparse population as destitute as themselves, they wanted to build a sawmill as a means of support. The settlers were so needy that Cleng Peerson himself added a plea for clothing.

The Rappites, or Harmonists, were followers of "Vater" George Rapp, a German pietistic prophet who had come to Pennsylvania in 1804. Between 1805 and 1825 the Harmonists had established three successful colonies, of which Economy was the last. Of the scores of utopian groups that founded socialist communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Rappites, with the Shakers and early Mormons, were the most successful. Like most religious [141] communitarians, they "had all things common" — not simply, like the Owenites, to avoid the evils of the new capitalistic society, but because the Bible had so commanded them (Acts 2: 44, 45, 4: 32—37).

The addressee, Frederick (Reichert) Rapp, was the business manager or "trustee" of the Harmony Society until his death in 1834. He was an adopted son of George Rapp, and he handled most of the society’s important dealings with the outside world.

If this letter were as ordinary as it seems (a few poverty-stricken Norwegians begging for a loan), it would be important only for the human dimension it adds to the well-known trials of the sloopers — the vanguard of Norwegian immigration. But when read in the light of other evidence, it seems to corroborate the long-known but never accepted statement, attributed to Ole Rynning, that Cleng Peerson was a communitarian by conviction and that therefore Norwegian immigration began as a communitarian venture. Writing from Illinois in 1838, the year Peerson visited Norway to recruit settlers for his proposed colony in Shelby County, Missouri, Rynning pointed out that Cleng Peerson’s "endeavor was then [1821—25], and is still, to unite all Norwegians into one community owning all its property in common." {8}

This view of the beginnings of Norwegian immigration raises many tantalizing questions. Had Peerson ever visited Economy during his wanderings? Had he known of the Harmonists before they sold Harmony, Indiana, to the famous Robert Owen in 1825? Many Swedish immigrants joined the Shakers in Kentucky — did any Norwegians join them? Many Norwegians joined the early, community-minded Mormons —were they followers of Peerson? If so, is Peerson ultimately responsible for the deep Scandinavian imprint on Utah — as well as on Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota? The famous [142] "frontier thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner would hold that frontier conditions made for democracy in religions —favoring "low" church against "high" church, adaptability over institutional rigidity. Are the low-church, cult-joining Norwegians a case in point? Ole Rynning’s letter of 1838 stated that Peerson’s object in 1821 was to establish a communistic colony uniting all Norwegians. Is the newly discovered Peerson letter conclusive proof of, or at least further evidence for, this contemporary statement?

It is curious, at first sight, that Peerson should have turned to the Harmonists for aid when the Shakers, who were just about as prosperous and famous as the Harmonists, lived so much closer. Considering Peerson’s communitarian leanings and the great renown of the Shakers, he must have known them well. He passed their headquarters near Albany on his trips between New York City and Kendall; and it was very common — almost obligatory in the 1820’s — for travelers passing through Albany to make the picturesque thirty-mile side trip to Shaker headquarters at New Lebanon, or for the less energetic to visit the important Shaker community of Watervliet, only seven miles away. While the sloopers were settling Kendall, the Shakers were successfully proselytizing in the same area — a campaign that led in 1826 to the establishment of their community of Sodus Bay, about fifty-five miles up the shore line of Lake Ontario from one of Peerson’s uncleared properties. {9}

But while the Shakers appealed to a whole group of early Swedish immigrants, they probably converted only one Norwegian. The early Norwegian immigrants were no doubt put off by certain Shaker doctrines; and besides, Economy, down the Allegheny Valley, was not much harder to reach than were [143] the Shaker headquarters near Albany. {10} Peerson had probably heard of the Harmonists in Europe. They were famous enough in England to be satirized in Byron’s "Don Juan" (1819—24); and as early as 1821 a group of English communitarians connected with both Robert Owen and the Harmony Society were described in a Norwegian newspaper. This was the group led by Morris Birkbeck and George Flower, who in 1818 founded Albion in Edwards County, Illinois. Owen himself had sought the advice of "Vater" Rapp in 1820. And Richard Flower, the father of George, had handled the sale of Rappite lands in Indiana to Owen in 1825. {11}

Probably Peerson became familiar with both the Rappite and Owenite strains of American communitarianism through William Allen, the Quaker mentor of the leading slooper, Lars Larsen, and a warm friend to the Haugeans. Allen (1770— 1843) was a former associate of Robert Owen and a pronounced communitarian. In Britain he had been one of Owen’s six partners in the purchase of the New Lanark mills in 1814, and through his third wife, Grizell Birkbeck, whom he married in 1827, he was related to Morris Birkbeck. In 1817, while Allen was visiting an experimental Quaker community near Avignon in France, his fellow Quakers back in England were helping the Zoarites, a communitarian group very similar to the Rappites, to emigrate to the United States. In 1818 he and Stephen Grellet, a Quaker missionary who had lived in the United States, visited Stavanger and greatly strengthened Norwegian Quakerism. In 1819 Allen was in eastern Europe visiting the communities of the Mennonites, the Dukhobors, and the Malakins. In 1822 he visited the True [144] Inspirationists (or Amana Society), who, like the sloopers, were to settle in western New York. {12}

In 1822 the most successful communitarian society in the United States was the Harmony Society, or the Rappites. It was natural that persons interested in founding, or joining, a co-operative society, would look to the famous Harmonists for aid and advice. Many letters of inquiry arrived in Economy from northern Europe, the British Isles, and the northern parts of the United States. The inquirers were usually concerned with escaping from a cruel and immoral world in which religious piety was hard to find and personal happiness impossible to achieve. {13}

The generous Rappites aided many groups that were not necessarily communitarian — or even religious. They did help at least two communitarian groups, namely the Ora et Labora colony in Michigan and the Hutterites in South Dakota; and they maintained extremely close relations with Shakers, Zoarites, and others. {14}


The suggestion that Cleng Peerson and his cosigners in the letter to the Rappites envisaged a Norwegian utopian community at Kendall is warranted by the history of real-estate transactions among the Norwegians in that area. {15} [145]

In June, 1826, the sloopers, according to their letter, needed $1,600 "to pay for about 400 acres of land on or before the beginning of 1828." Very likely they had arranged in 1824 or 1825 to buy most of this land through Cleng Peerson. Originally the sloopers had hoped to finance these purchases by selling their little ship in the port of New York. But the tiny sloop had broken safety regulations by carrying too many passengers, was confiscated, and was released only after a pardon was issued by President John Quincy Adams. After paying legal costs, the sloopers were glad to get $400 for the vessel. The "Restoration" should have brought about $1,370 (or about 1,800 Norwegian specie dollars) — a little less than the $1,600 they were now requesting from the Rappites. {16}

Certainly, whether the letter writers got the money from the Rappites or not — a question which will be considered later — they had bought $1,600 worth of land immediately upon their arrival the year before. At that time each adult person among the sloopers purchased, on credit, about 50 acres at $5.00 an acre. {17} The letter to the Rappites, signed by eight men, specified a total purchase of 400 acres. This acreage, divided eight ways, comes to 50 acres for each signer at $4.00 per acre. The Pulteney Estate land price was $5.00 an [146] acre, but this could be reduced to $4.00 if paid by 1828 —which explains the curious deadline set by the letter.

This division into 50-acre tracts seems to point to individual ownership, but evidence is strong that the Norwegians did in fact hold some land in common. Precisely what form this common ownership took is not clear. Not all the sloopers held the same beliefs and not all of them settled together. And, as the letter to the Rappites indicates, the communitarian followers of Peerson formed a small minority of the whole group: seven male adults out of twenty-two, not counting Peerson, who was not a slooper. Although the Norwegian settlement was not important to him, Arad Thomas, a Yankee neighbor, briefly noted both the communal and private aspects of the slooper enterprise in his Pioneer History of Orleans County:

"About the year 1825, a company of Norwegians, about fifty-two in number, settled on the lake shore . . . and took up land in a body. . . . After a few years they began to move away to join their countrymen who had settled in Illinois. .

"They thought it very important that every family should have land and a home of their own. A neighbor once asked a little Norwegian boy whose father happened to be too poor to own land, where his father lived? and was answered, ‘Oh, we don’t live nowhere, we hain’t got no land." {18}

Whatever may have been the precise rules of ownership among the communal group, this group, though smaller, was a dominant one. It was Peerson who did the preliminary spadework and who purchased land for the sloopers. And it was one of his cosigners, Thormod Madland, who had sparked the final decision to leave Norway. {19}

A recently discovered map of 1832 seems to corroborate the [147] rather vague testimony of Arad Thomas in 1871 and the unequivocal assertion of Ole Rynning in 1838 that Peerson’s followers intended to settle as a community. This map shows that the cohesive group which drew up the letter to the Harmony Society in 1826 was almost as closely knit in 1832 as it was six years before. Of the six letter signers (not counting Peerson) still living in 1832, at least four or five shared land. The acreage of Gudmund Danielson, who was a bachelor in 1826, is not shown on the map. Moreover, the lands of all the signers, as contrasted with those of sloopers who did not sign or of immigrants who arrived after 1826, form one contiguous strip from the shores of Lake Ontario to the interior. And one tract is marked simply "Norwegians." {20}

This map also reflects the independent, leading position Peerson had taken in the letter to the Rappites. He owned four tracts, irregular in size, three alone and one with one of the sloopers. Of his own three tracts, one contained 78.52 acres, another about 100 acres, and a third, 153.70 acres. A fourth tract of about 100 acres he shared with a signer of the letter: his brother-in-law, Cornelius Nelson Hersdal, named on the map as "Nelson."

From the evidence of the letter to the Rappites, from the remark of Arad Thomas, from the fact that Peerson had originally purchased 6 parcels of land, from the forthright statement of Ole Rynning concerning Peerson’s intentions, and from the religious background and subsequent communitarian activities of Peerson and his closest associates (to be outlined below), we may conclude that sometime between 1826 and 1832 Cleng Peerson and his seven followers were attempting to found a secular utopia at Kendall.

In 1832 Peerson adopted two new partners in landholding, and surviving records of his unpaid bills indicate that the would-be communitarians did not have enough money for a successful start. In 1834 Kendall suddenly lost all its charms for the Norwegians. Of the hundred families who had come [148] there after 1826 not more than eight families remained ten years later. All but one of the living signers of the letter to the Rappites had moved to Illinois. {21} The debts they left behind suggest that the violent land history of western New York between 1825 and 1834 may have had more to do with the dissolution of the Kendall colony than the westering visions of Peerson and Nordboe.

It is, of course, tempting to explain the motives of the letter writers in purely economic terms: Peerson was attempting to speculate in land at the expense of his fellow Norwegians. The facts seem to fit perfectly. He held more land than his compatriots, and indeed John (Johannes) Nordboe, the Norwegian pioneer of Texas, left Kendall complaining that Peer-son controlled all the good land. Besides the agricultural value of the tracts, all four fronted on Lake Ontario and such properties were the delight of land speculators in the 1830’s. {22}

But this theory does not at all comport with Peerson’s personality and later career. Even Ole Rynning, who looked upon Peerson (and the rest of the world) with the eyes of a suspicious realist, remarked of his contemporary in 1838:

"Heavy work was never to [Peerson’s] liking, but on the other [149] hand he never aimed at personal profit. He worked for everybody and benefited everybody, but often in such an indirect way that few people or no one gave him any thanks for it." And it was the penniless Nordboe who was grasping and selfish, for though he arrived seven years after the sloopers (in obedience to a vision from God), he insisted on having a particular lot which Peerson had already purchased for his own use. Disgruntled when he was refused, Nordboe soon left for Illinois. Moreover, it is quite likely that, as a native of eastern Norway, he was unable to get along well with Peerson and his fellow settlers, who were all from the western part of Norway. In 1838 Nordboe moved on to Texas, where he prospered and came to hold in suspicion such things as visions from God. About 1848 he invited Peerson, now his friend, to join him in the new Texas Eden. Both men espoused a kind of religious rationalism in these later years. {23}

Another possible explanation from the economic point of view is the obvious one based on a simple reading of the letter to the Rappites itself. The eight signers were merely asking for a loan. This they would divide among themselves for private purposes: to relieve the great privation of the settlers by enabling them to earn a living with a sawmill and some farm land. They were trying to colonize one of the toughest frontier areas in the United States at a time when local money was very scarce. The Erie Canal had not yet made its full effects felt, and within a year the indebted settlers of western New York would revolt against the land companies and eventually drive them out of the state. {24}

Since the Harmonists did receive scores of begging letters, this view seems reasonable. But the account of Ole Rynning, [150] far from supporting this interpretation, clearly reinforces the communitarian one: "[Cleng Peerson’s] endeavor was then [1821—25], and is still, to unite all Norwegians into one community owning all its property in common. Since these first emigrants often suffered want in the beginning, Cleng Peerson took it upon himself to travel around among wealthy Americans asking aid for all the Norwegians. This did not meet with everybody’s approval, partly because on his excursion he had spoken on behalf of all the Norwegians without asking their permission, partly because he had shown some favoritism in his distribution of the means. None of the Norwegians then had more than fifty acres, and no one could meet the conditions of the purchase." {25}

The begging-letter view also raises many vexing problems. If the slooper letter were simply a fund-raising idea of Peer-son’s, how does one reconcile it with the indubitable evidence of his communitarian convictions both before and after it was written? If, as Rynning says, Peerson raised funds for "all" Norwegians, "without asking their permission," why was he so careful to get seven specific men to sign the letter along with him? Why did he write a separate endorsement implying he was their leader? Finally, Rynning mentions an itinerant begging tour ("excursion"), not a letter. Such journeys might yield pittances, but the letter asks for a sum quite large for the time and about equal to the original capital available (in the form of the salable sloop) for settlement. {26} Why so large a sum, if not for some communal type of colony?

What little is known about the Kendall settlement points, if anywhere, toward group organization. {27} The emigrants need not have intended a communal colony before leaving the old country. Many communitarian societies started their journey to the American West as dedicated groups of individuals, only [151] to wind up as tightly knit utopian communities in which all things were owned in common. The religious communities were born of a certain religious mentality and not, like so many of the secular utopias, of rational planning. That the Haugean and Quaker convictions of the early settlers included such a mentality has already been touched upon.

Two final bits of evidence suggesting that Peerson attempted to establish a utopian community in Kendall are the nature of the first housing arrangements and the existence of two groups among the sloopers.

Twenty-four of the settlers —more than half — united and actually did live in common. Having doubtless been driven to this step by sundry privations, all twenty-four persons lived —or at least survived — in a tiny log house twelve by twelve feet with a garret, which Peerson had apparently built for the group in 1824. Peerson already had five acres of arable land and at least one log hut of his own, so he probably did not choose to join his closely packed countrymen. {28}

Now, if one were to take the seven signers of the letter to the Harmony Society and add to them the total number of their wives and children, the sum arrived at is startling: twenty-four. {29} Very probably it was this very household whose seven adult males signed the letter to the Harmony Society.

A final factor running counter to the interpretation of the slooper letter as a fund-raising document inspired by Peerson is the fact that Arad Thomas and Ole Rynning both agree that there were two groups of Norwegians — those who favored a [152] system of common ownership and those who wanted their own land. In Rynning’s remarks it was the private-property group that complained of Peerson’s activities. Ole Rynning probably charged Peerson with "favoritism" because he was trying to collect money for a separate party within the larger body of Norwegian settlers, that is, for the seven would-be communitarians who had written to the Harmony Society. A careful study of each of the seven reveals them to be closely bound together by complicated ties of home parish, money invested in the sloop, marriage, and blood.

Thus, the activities and background of the signers of the letter to the Harmony Society point to a religious mentality and to a solidarity that can only reinforce the thesis that their leader, Peerson, was bent on establishing a Norwegian utopia.


What did the Harmonists think of Peerson’s scheme? Did they answer the letter?

Very little is known of the history of the Kendall colony between 1825 and 1833, but considering the sloopers’ many debts and the dissolution of the original group about 1832, the Harmonists probably never sent the $1,600.

There is little doubt, however, that the Harmonists conscientiously weighed Peerson’s plea and that they wrote a reply. Only one tantalizingly incomplete draft of a letter survives in the Harmony Society archives and it may or may not have been intended for the Norwegians. Dated December 20, 1826, it is addressed to an unidentified group living near Rochester. The writer, probably the bilingual Frederick Rapp, begins in English and then lapses into the more comfortable German idiom:

"ECONOMY Dec: 20th 1826


Your letter of 4th inst. is rec’d, from which we learn that our society has excited your interest for a long time, etc., and that you would very much like to know about our laws and [153] ordinances and whether or not you would be permitted to become members."

The writer goes on to describe Christ as their foundation stone and Acts 2: 44, 45 and 6: 32—37 as their text for owning things in common. The best plan, he suggests, would be to send one or two heads of families to see for themselves, and he directs them to travel by way of Erie to Pittsburgh and then eighteen miles downstream on the Ohio to Economy.

Language would have been no barrier to slooper membership in the society. As pointed out above, many Swedes had joined the Shakers and at least two signers of the slooper letter later joined non-Norwegian communitarian cults. The biggest obstacle would have been the Rappite doctrine of celibacy, and even this was preached by the best known of the early Haugean preachers in Illinois — Elling Eielsen, the self-styled "Apostle." {30} And the doctrine of celibacy did not prevent the Rappites from lending money to the communitarian Hutterites of Dakota Territory in 1875— and eventually helping plant a Hutterite colony in Warren County, Pennsylvania.

Whatever the exact nature of Norwegian-Rappite relations and the fate of the loan, it is clear that the Kendall settlement, led by the father of Norwegian immigration, was in part a communitarian venture and that the venture failed almost before it started. The reasons for failure were not economic, but psychological and personal. Peerson and his followers simply did not have the religious zeal that Hans Nielsen Hauge had displayed, back in Norway, in leading his followers over equally difficult obstacles toward communal co-operation; and Peerson himself was too restless to organize anything he started.

Peerson and the first Norwegians exerted a vast influence on the culture of large parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, [154] the Dakotas, and even of Utah. To grasp this larger significance of early Norwegian communitarianism, one must go back to Norway and forward to the Norwegian immigration to Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Peerson’s aspirations must be linked to the entire religious setting of early Norwegian immigration: to Quakerism, to Haugeanism, to Mormonism, and to the later career of Peerson and of those who signed the letter to the Rappites. Only the barest outlines of this setting can be suggested here.

Despite the failure at Kendall, the mere attempt was as significant for the spirit of Norwegian immigration as was the zionism of the Puritans for the spirit of New England. {31} And, as was so often the case with such groups, the zionistic or Edenic theme was interwined with a strong strand of political and especially religious dissent. In 1835 one of the most influential of all the writers of America letters summed up most of early Norwegian immigration in a simple, heartfelt statement: "I do not believe that any who suffer oppression and who must rear their children in poverty could do better than to come to America." A few years later Fredrika Bremer noted with alarm how many were indeed escaping the established ways of the old country: Scandinavian immigrants, she wrote, had come "into the West very frequently . . . as rejectors of all church communion and every higher law." And every student of early Norwegian immigration can testify to the truth of her statement by citing the nonconformist ideas of such men as Cleng Peerson, Johannes Nordboe, and Hans Barlien. {32}

In religion, dissent usually expressed itself in Haugean Lutheranism or in Quakerism, the faiths of the majority of the sloopers. Both these sects were then still very close to the [155] pietistic communitarian traditions of northern Europe. In fact, an early nineteenth-century German church historian viewed the Haugeans of Norway and the pietistic Rappites as two curious remnants of a single tradition: "Such religious enthusiasm among the lower classes is . . . a much less frequent phenomenon than it was formerly . . . and only in old Wurttemberg and in Norway [have] some fanatics of this sect . . . recently appeared." The Norwegian Quakers as well as the Haugeans must be included in communitarian tradition; William Allen, mentor of the Norwegian Quakers, was himself a builder of utopian communities. {33}

This strand of dissent runs from the Conventicle Act of 1741 (directed against nonconforming ministers like the Moravian pastor of Hans Nielsen Hauge’s childhood) to such nonconforming Norwegian Americans as Marcus Thrane, Rasmus B. Anderson, Thorstein Veblen, and many less well-known figures such as Kristofer Janson, Andreas Ueland, and "Triphammer" Johnson. When thus viewed as part of the whole cloth, the communitarian element in Norwegian immigration was an almost predictable part of the larger religious and social discontent that racked much of northern Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Men seek Eden most when they see it least.

After the breakup of their Kendall colony in 1834 and its resettlement in Illinois in the same year, the Norwegian Americans demonstrated an extraordinary affinity for the early, communitarian form of Mormonism and thus became the forerunners of the vast migration of Scandinavian Mormons to Utah. The daughter of one of the signers of the letter to the Rappites married Canute Peterson, perhaps the most important of all these forerunners. Other children of the signers also became Mormons. And of the five sloopers who accompanied [156] Peerson to the Fox River Valley in 1834, three — possibly four— became Mormons, and two of the five were signers of the letter to the Rappites. In Illinois the Norwegian converts to Mormonism consecrated an ideal Mormon "city of Zion" called Norway, the growth of which was choked off by the expulsion of the Mormons from Illinois. Several Norwegian converts were participants in Brigham Young’s attempts to revive Mormon communitarianism in the 1870’s. {34}

Mormonism did not exhaust the communitarian impulse of early Norwegian immigration. Peerson himself briefly joined the Swedish communist community of Bishop Hill in Illinois in 1847, and in the late 1840’s other early Norwegian immigrants joined the communitarian Strangite offshoot of Mormonism in Wisconsin. In 1850 Nils Otto Tank founded the Moravian community of Ephraim, near Green Bay, Wisconsin. And, finally, there was Oleana, the ill-fated utopian "New Norway" founded in 1852 by Ole Bull in Potter County, Pennsylvania. It is noteworthy that Bishop Hill, the one utopian community of non-Norwegian Scandinavians, contained several Norwegians, and that it originated, theologically, in Jansonism, the Swedish pietistic counterpart of Norwegian Haugeanism.

The Kendall settlement was not just another group of foreigners drawing together in a close body in a strange land. Though foreignness and privation sharpened the sloopers’ sense of group identity, religious conviction and the personal leadership of Cleng Peerson had marked them with a special quality. The far-reaching practical and symbolic significance of Peerson’s utopian colonizing activities justifies our calling him the father of Norwegian-American communitarianism [157] and perhaps of Norwegian-American dissent. Unwittingly Peerson carried a Haugean version of an ancient Christian tradition to the New World; and Hauge himself was more than another Wesley: he was, for an important part of his career, a practical community builder.

Haugean Lutheranism, Norwegian Quakerism, German pietism, and Yankee Mormonism had found common cornmunitarian grounds in early nineteenth-century America, and their confluence among the Norwegians of New York and Illinois constitutes an extremely important factor in the history of Norwegian immigration and of the American West.


<1> Walter Havighurst, "Peer Gynt on the Prairies," in Upper Mississippi, 9—23 (Rivers of America Series, vol. 2— New York, 1937); Rasmus B. Anderson, "Kleng Peerson," in American-Scandinavian Review, 8:504 (July, 1920); Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825—1860, 61 (North-field, 1931); Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home, 82 (Minneapolis, 1955).

<2> This information is based mainly on Dean Theodore C. Blegen’s article in the Dictionary of American Biography, 14:390. Additional details are in his "Cleng Peerson and Norwegian Immigration," in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 7:308 (March, 1921).

<3> There were a fairly large number of Quakers in Farmington in the adjacent county of Monroe. Peerson had friends there and visited them at least once and probably several times. There were two other near-by Quaker settlements, one at Millville, about ten miles southwest of the Kendall colony, another near Elba, Genesee County, located about eighteen miles southwest of Kendall. Although comparatively few and widely scattered throughout the state, the Quakers kept in close touch with one another. Thus, after the construction of the Erie Canal we find Mrs. Lars Larsen visiting a "yearly meeting" in New York City as one of the traveling companions of the famous English Quaker Joseph John Gurney. See her letter to Elias Tastad, probably written from Rochester about 1838 and printed in Rasmus B. Anderson, "The Norse Mayflower," in American-Scandinavian Review, 13:863 (June, 1925); Joseph Bevan Braithwaite, ed., Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney, 1:101, 2:92 (Philadelphia, 1854).

<4> Braithwaite, ed., Joseph John Gurney, 188; Arad Thomas, Pioneer History of Orleans County, 288 (Albion, New York, 1871); Rasmus B. Anderson, The First Chapter of Norwegian Immigration (1821—1 840): Its Causes and Results, 179, 191 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1895); Anderson, in American-Scandinavian Review, 13:355.

<5> A letter of Peerson, December 20, 1824, copied in Thormod Madland to Mauris Halvarsen, June 28, 1825, in Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 381—385. Blegen effectively defends the authenticity of the Madland letter, p. 387—392.

<6> Mario S. De Pillis, "Still More Light on the Kendall Colony: A Unique Sleeper Letter," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 20:24—31 (1959).

<7> Theodore C. Blegen to the author, January 5, 1959. On the four letters, see Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 185, 381; Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 59, 353. Blegen discusses Peerson’s career in Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 24—27.

<8> Rynning’s letter is in Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 41—43. The original, dated January 28, 1838, was published in Det udflyttede Norge, 6—8 (Christiania, 1884).

<9> In 1824 and 1825 Shaker elder Richard W. Pelham converted enough people in and around Lyons in Wayne and Ontario counties to establish the Sodus Bay community. See his autobiographical "Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience of R. W. Pelham," 49—59, a manuscript account in the collection of Dr. Edward Deming Andrews, curator of the restored Shaker village of Hancock, Massachusetts.

<10> The convert was Charles Anderson (1776-1829), who joined the Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky in 1815. See "Biographical Register ... Book C," 53, Pleasant Hill Manuscripts, Filson Club, Louisville, Kentucky. The Swedes joined this community several years later. In the spring of 1817 Richard W. Pelham boarded a raft at the headwaters of the Allegheny River at Olean Point and floated down to Pittsburgh. "R. W. Pelham," 15.

<11> Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663—1829, 48, 219 (Philadelphia, 1950).

<12> Sketch of William Allen, in Dictionary of National Biography, 1:322;W. H. G. Armytage, "A 19th-Century Social Experiment," in Country Life (London), 120:1190 (October-December, 1956); Aaron Williams, The Harmony Society at Economy, Pennsylvania, 21, 123 (Pittsburgh, 1866); Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States, 100 (New York, 1875).

<13> See W. P. Wing to Frederick Rapp, February 5, 1829, January 23, 1830, Harmony Society Archives. Most such inquiries were addressed to George ("Vater") Rapp, and his letter books disappeared from the Harmony Society Archives after World War II.

<14> Bestor, Backwoods Utopias, 50. The Story of the Ore et Labora group may be reconstructed from materials in the Harmony Society Archives. For a very brief summary based on German newspaper material, see Carl Wittke, "Ora et Labora: A German Methodist Utopia (1862—68)," in Ohio Historical Quarterly, 67:129-140 (April, 1958). On the American Hutterites, see Karl J. Arndt, "The Harmonists and the Hutterians," in American German Review, 10:24-27 (August, 1944).

<15> This history has been considerably illuminated by Richard Canuteson’s "A Little More Light on the Kendall Colony," in Studies and Records, 18:82— 101 (1954). I have relied on his data.

<16> Peerson had arrived about a year before as the advance agent of the sloopers. The figures "$400" and "1,800 specie dollars" are taken from Anderson, in American-Scandinavian Review, 8:502; and from Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 42. Blegen estimates the original purchase price at $1,370; Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 41. See also his Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition, 599—628 (Northfield, 1940).

<17> The figure "50 acres" is mine. Anderson says 40 acres, following the testimony of Ole Rynning; American-Scandinavian Review, 13:358. Professor Canuteson takes exception to Anderson’s figure. See Studies and Records, 18:90. The real-estate map of 1832 discovered by Canuteson shows that Rynning was not far wrong. Most lots in this corner of the Pulteney Estate averaged about 100 acres each. Since most of the Norwegians shared lots by twos, an average individual holding would have been 50 acres. This size accords with the acreage requested in the slooper letter. At the regular price of $5.00 per acre, the signers could have afforded only 320 acres, or 40 acres for each petitioner (Rynning’s figure).

<18> Thomas, Orleans County, 273. Thomas points out, however, that each family operated its own farm. Such individual "ownership" can easily be arranged under a communitarian system — the early Mormons followed this practice — but the usual provision for land tenure was a communistic one. For this study of the communal effort of the seven sleepers, the close financial co-operation is far more important than the precise legal category of land tenure.

<19> Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1 825—1860, 41—54.

<20> See map in Studies and Records, 18:90.

<21> Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 24. In 1836 at least four of the petitioners to the Rappites were still listed as taxable landholders. And a table in the Pulteney Papers reveals that Peerson had signed a bond of indebtedness dated 1837 in the amount of $1,519.49. This bond and the indebtedness of other Norwegians (long since resettled in Illinois) raise many questions. See Canuteson’s tables in Studies and Records, 18:94, 97.

<22> Rasmus B. Anderson, Norwegian Immigration, 138; Streng Letter Book, p. 3 (June 12, 1836), Western Americana Collection, Yale University; Thomas, Orleans County, 55, 353. Recent research has shown that even in colonial Massachusetts the poor on-the-spot pioneer indulged in speculation. See Charles S. Grant, "Land Speculation and the Settlement of Kent, 1738—1760," in New England Quarterly, 28:51—54 (March, 1955). Lake-front lands were valuable not so much because of shipping or even because of the creeks emptying into Lake Ontario, but because the lake plain constituted the main route of the "Yankee exodus," which, combined with the "Cenesee fever," the authorization in 1817 of the Erie Canal, and the fact that so much of western New York was owned by large speculative land companies, made the area from Oswego to Dunkirk very attractive to speculators.

Although Kendall was located at the wrong end of this stretch, land speculation there eventually would have paid off. Anderson, Norwegian Immigration, 80; Thomas, Orleans County, 55, 853.

<23> Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 43. See also Arne Odd Johnsen, ed., "Johannes Nordboe and Norwegian Immigration: An ‘America Letter’ of 1837," Lyder L. Unstad, ed., "The First Norwegian Migration into Texas: Four ‘America Letters,’" and C. A. Clausen, tr. and ed., "Recollections of a Norwegian Pioneer in Texas," in Studies and Records, 8:25—27, 44, 12:101 (1934, 1941); Anderson, Norwegian Immigration, 188.

<24> Paul D. Evans, The Holland Land Company, chapters 9, 10 (Buffalo, 1924). See especially p. 351.

<25> Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 42.

<26> It has been stated that the dollar of 1826—32 was the soundest ever passed from one American to another. Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, 374 (Princeton, New Jersey, 1957).

<27> Blegen, in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 7:304.

<28> Several of the sloopers settled in New York and Rochester; Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 54. On the log house, see Anderson, in American-Scandinavian Review, 13:359; Peerson, in Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 384. Peerson wrote, "I have built this house on the land selected for you whose arrival I am awaiting, but in the spring, if the Lord permits me to live, I shall build on my own land." It was not unusual for communitarian leaders to have separate houses or lands.

<29> This figure is based on Blegen’s definitive list of sloopers. The only uncertainty concerns Knudson. He could have been either Andrew Stangeland or Andrew (Endre) Dahl; about this time Stangeland seems to have been a bachelor traveling companion of Peerson; Blegen, Norwegian Migration, 1825—1860, 885, 395. Dahl, too, was a bachelor.

<30> In 1843 Apostle Eielsen somewhat comprised his doctrine on the "sinfulness of marriage" by taking a young Norwegian girl to wife. Although celibacy was commonly practiced by communitarians, Anderson found Eielsen’s marriage a "quaint bit"; Norwegian Immigration, 299.

<31> The Plymouth settlers had actually made an unsuccessful attempt at a utopian venture, about two centuries earlier than the sloopers.

<32> Blegen, ed., Land of Their Choice, 22; Bremer, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, 1:612 (New York, 1853). The best general statement of the Edenic theme in American history is Charles Sanford, The Quest for Paradise: Europe and the American Moral Imagination (Urbana, Illinois, 1961).

<33> Heinrich Cottlieb Tzschirner, quoted in Williams, The Harmony Society, 15. For the Haugean background of Norwegian communitarianism, see E. Clifford Nelson and Eugene L. Fevold, The Lutheran Church among Norwegian-Americans: A History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, 1960). On Allen, see Armytage, in Country Life, 120:1190—1192.

<34> A brief account of these early conversions to Mormonism is in William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia, 3—17 (Minneapolis, 1957); see also Anderson, Norwegian Immigration, 399—408. The early communitarian tendencies of the Scandinavian Mormons in Utah are stressed in Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847—1893 (Northfield, 1958). See especially chapters entitled "From Babylon to Zion," and "A Kingdom Built with Hands," p. 74—134, 223—273.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page